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  • Yoganand Michael Carroll

A Meditation From the Chandogya Upanishad for Difficult Times

The Upanishads are a group of Indian texts written between the 8th century BCE and the 3rd century CE that are foundational to yoga. When the Upanishads were written, yoga was not yet a philosophical system and practice. That did not come about until about the time of the Bhagavad Gita around the 3-4th century CE. However, the Upanishads had a strong influence on yoga and many ideas expressed in the Upanishads found a home in yoga philosophy and practice.


A core teaching in the Upanishads is that there exists underneath all the disturbance of life a still and eternal Self. That Self is pure consciousness that, upon entering matter, becomes thought and then emotion and then desire and fear. Lastly consciousness becomes binding action in the world of the senses and body. It was believed by the authors of these texts, and I think it is still true today, that it is easier to live in the world of disturbance if one could, from time to time, leave it behind and ‘rest in the Self.’


Meditation in the Upanishads was contemplation on the inner Self. Since that Self is invisible behind the thoughts and emotions, the Upanishadic teachers led their students towards it through metaphors and stories. Meditation on these illustrations led the students to the experience of the Self that cannot be communicated in words. In some instances the essence of the text is expressed in a simple phrase that sometimes repeats in successive verses. This essential truth is called a ‘Maha Vakya,’ or ‘great word.’ A prime example is this short verse from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: Aham Brahmasmi.


This literally translates, ‘I am the unchanging eternal Self.” Imagine sitting for 20 minutes repeating this silently with each exhalation. Imagine repeating this daily for weeks or months. The effect could be profound.


In the excerpt from the Chandogya Upanishad below, several clusters of metaphors are given that illustrate the invisible inner Self. Each metaphor ends with the Maha Vakya: ‘Tat Twam Asi.’ Literally, ‘Thou Art That.’


This is a story from section 6 of the Chandogya Upanishad. In this section a young man named Svetaketu returns to his father Uddalaka, after years of study with a Vedic scholar. The father notices that his son is arrogant, and on questioning him they both realize the boy does not know the truth of the Self, the goal of a Vedic education.


His father said to him: "Svetaketu, since you are now so serious, think yourself well read and are so arrogant, have you, my dear, ever asked for that instruction by which one hears what cannot be heard, perceives what cannot be perceived, and knows what cannot be known?" Svetaketu asked: "What is that instruction, venerable Sir?"

Uddalaka, gives a brief introduction to the Upanishadic teachings on the inner Self, and Svetaketu responds by asking his father to teach him more.


“Surely those venerable men did not know that. For if they had known it, why should they not have told it to me? Therefore do you, venerable Sir, tell me about it."

"So be it, my dear," said the father.

(Metaphor #1)

"Just as by one lump of clay all that is made of clay is known, the different shapes being only names, while the truth is that all clay objects are made of clay;

"Just as by one nugget of gold all that is made of gold is known, the different shapes being only names, arising from speech, while the truth is that all gold objects are gold;

"And just as by one pair of scissors all that is made of iron is known, the different shapes being only names, arising from speech, while the truth is that all iron objects are iron."

"Know that, which is the subtle essence, is the Self of all. That is the Real. That is the Self.

Thou Art That."

(Metaphor #2)

"As bees make honey by collecting the juices of trees located at different places and reduce them to one form, "And as honey has no ability to say: ‘I am from this tree,’ or ‘I am from that tree,’ even so all these creatures, though they reach Pure Being, do not know that they have reached Pure Being.

"Whatever these creatures are, here in this world−a tiger, a lion, a wolf, a boar, a worm, a fly, a gnat, or a mosquito−that essence they will become again.

"Know that, which is the subtle essence, is the Self of all. That is the Real. That is the Self.

Thou Art That."

(Metaphor #3)

"These rivers flow toward the east and toward the west.

They arise from the sea and flow into the sea. Just as these rivers, while they are in the

sea, do not know: ‘I was this river’ or ‘I was that river,’

"Even so all these creatures, even though they have come from Pure Being, do not know that they have come from Pure Being. Whatever these creatures are, here in this world−a tiger, a lion, a wolf a boar, a worm, a fly, a gnat, or a mosquito, that essence they become again.

"Know that, which is the subtle essence, is the Self of all. That is the Real. That is the Self.

Thou Art That."

(Metaphor #4)

"If someone were to strike at the root of this large tree here, it would bleed but live. If he were to strike at the middle, it would bleed but live. If he were to strike at the top, it would bleed but live. Pervaded by the living Self, that tree stands firm, drinking in again and again its nourishment.

"But if the life essence leaves one of its branches, that branch withers. If it leaves the whole tree, the whole three withers.

"In exactly the same manner," know this: This body dies, bereft of the living Self; but the living Self does not die.

"Know that, which is the subtle essence, is the Self of all. That is the Real. That is the Self.

Thou Art That."

(Metaphor #5)

"Bring me a fruit of that banyan tree."

"Here it is’ venerable Sir." "Break it."

"It is broken, Sir."

"What do you see there?"

"These seeds, exceedingly small,

"Break one of these, my son."

"It is broken, Sir."

"What do you see there?"

"Nothing at all, Sir."

"That subtle essence, which you do not perceive there−from that very essence this great banyan arises.

"Know that, which is the subtle essence, is the Self of all. That is the Real. That is the Self.

Thou Art That."

(Metaphor #6)

"Place this salt in water and then come to me in the morning."

The son did as he was told.

The father said to him: "My son, bring me the salt which you placed in the water last night." Looking for it, the son did not find it, for it was completely dissolved.

The father said: "My son, take a sip of water from the surface. How is it?"

"It is salty."

"Take a sip from the middle. How is it?"

"It is salty."

"Take a sip from the bottom. How is it?"

"It is salty."

"Throw it away and come to me."

The son did as he was told, saying: "The salt was there all the time."

Then the father said: "Here also, my dear, in this body you do not perceive the Self; but

It is indeed there."

"Know that, which is the subtle essence, is the Self of all. That is the Real. That is the Self.

Thou Art That."

(Metaphor #7)

"Around a dying person afflicted with illness, my dear, his relatives gather and ask: ‘Do you know me? Do you know me?’ He knows them as long as his speech is not merged in his mind, his mind in his prana, his prana fire and the fire in the Highest Deity.

"But when his speech is merged in his mind, his mind in his prana, his prana in heat and

the heat in the Highest Deity, then he does not know them.

"Know that, which is the subtle essence, is the Self of all. That is the Real. That is the Self.

Thou Art That."

A simple way to use this passage for meditation in alignment with the Upanishadic tradition is to sit quietly for a few minutes and still your breath and mind. In the text, tenderness is expressed by the father/teacher for the son/student. Reflect on your teachers and other well-wishers in your life. Invite a feeling of connection and trust.


Read one set of illustrations of the essential Self several times slowly. Let images and tactile feelings emerge (Taste the salty water if you are working with metaphor #6, for example.) When you have a feeling, or at least an understanding of the illustration of the Self behind phenomenon, begin to silently repeat with each exhale; Thou Art That, as if it were being spoken to you by a teacher or well-wisher. Repeat for 20 minutes feeling the effects of the words. Sit silently for a few moments focusing on your feelings. Then remember those feelings as you move through the rest of your day.

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